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By Tim Gibbs

At a time when there is much talk about corruption and state failure, especially in local municipalities, the quiet revival of government subsidised cattle dipping in KwaZulu Natal (KZN) in recent years is an important ‘success story’ that deserves far more attention. Today, around 90-95% of the 1600 dipping tanks in the communal areas of the province are working again, protecting the livestock of smallholders from diseases that, if left unchecked, can ravage herds.

The success of cattle dipping in KZN in recent years is all the more remarkable given that, historically, the government officials who organised cattle dipping were seen in many rural communities as ‘agents of oppression’. When cattle dipping was first established in South Africa in the 1900s to stop an outbreak of East Coast Fever, dissidents armed with old rifles from the anti-colonial wars took the hills in the northeastern districts of Transkei. Likewise, the Bambatha Rebellion gained momentum in part because of popular protests against livestock dipping. Similarly, the most stirring passages in Govan Mbeki’s classic, The Peasants Revolt (1964), concern the insurgents who refused to pay livestock taxes and destroyed the dipping-tanks during the rural protests of the 1950s and 1960s.

cattle dipping kzn

Image: Rauri Alcock

For all these reasons, apartheid era systems of cattle dipping and animal health control fell apart in most rural districts of South Africa during the 1990s democratic transition as the grip of the apartheid state slackened. The determination of Nelson Mandela’s government to prioritise education and healthcare then meant that, for the best part of a decade, agricultural expenditures and rural infrastructure were neglected twice over. In some parts of South Africa, the collapse of effective systems of animal healthcare have been disastrous. Tick-borne diseases are endemic, once again, along the Wild Coast of the Eastern Cape: the cattle quite literally covered with bloated, blood-engorged ticks. Rural households that keep cattle and goats often spend sizeable sums of money on make-do medicines.

In the mid-2000s, the KZN Department of Agriculture started a new programme that renovated and rebuilt the neglected cattle dipping tanks on communal lands. Community volunteers, organised into Livestock Associations, started running their local dipping tanks. These Livestock Associations have become important institutions of civic activism. While government officials provide free dipping chemicals and occasional technical advice, it is the Livestock Associations that do the hard work of organising regular dipping days on a fortnightly/monthly basis. To undertake their work, these voluntary organisations are raising at least R450 million in membership fees across KZN every year. Look closely into the Livestock Associations and you will see remarkable organisations of civil society that have a similar scale and complexity to independent churches and savings clubs.

There is also an important economic argument for supporting the work of Livestock Associations. In recent years, researchers have counted the scale and importance of informal economic transactions carried out by rural householders, so often missed in official reports and statistics. The cash value of informal cattle and goat sales in KZN alone is estimated at R4.2 billion per annum. While KZN’s rural householders meet some of this consumer demand, the use of goats for ritual slaughter in KZN alone is so high that more than 500,000 goats are shipped into the province from Namibia each year. Livestock Associations often stand at the centre of a dense web of livestock transactions in their districts. If the government supported the work of the Livestock Associations further—for example, supporting goat dipping and cattle dipping—they could stimulate an important sector of the South African ‘informal’ economy’. And given that goats are quite often held by female headed and poorer households, any measures that support this sector will be encouraging ‘pro-poor’ economic growth.

Read the the Working Paper this blog is based on here.